Friday, May 31, 2013

Naming the Phantom

My grandmother on my father's side was Greek. Therefore she carried with her the Greek name for grandmother, "Yia Yia". She was always watching over everyone, in a nosey sort of way that was entirely endearing. She loved us so much, she literally hovered over us when she was with us. And with those traits in mind, I've dubbed the DJI Phantom, "Yia Yia". What's funny is that my client's liaison, Andrianna Natsoulas is also Greek. In fact she is the one that came up with the idea of naming the airship ... and came up with the notion of naming her Yia Yia.

Yesterday, I got up early here in Sitka to film halibut fishermen.  They were uncertain of the weather, which is the only thing you can say about Alaska weather with any predictability. It is uncertain.  So I packed Yia Yia along to watch the weather as Jeff and Megan, two friends that have fished together for years, cut bait. I arrived at the dock alone.

For some reason, I'd actually gotten up, or so it seemed, before the fishermen. Turns out I was wrong. Megan arrived just after I did. Jeff, she informed me, was driving back to find the bucket of bait that had fallen off the tailgate of his truck. In a town like Sitka, a bucket of thawing salmon laying in the road could be quite the find. Bears. Ravens. Eagles... they all eat fish and they all live here. There are also sports fishermen in town to try their hand at landing a big halibut, and they would be more likely than a commercial fisher to consider the mistake to be their good fortune.  The commercial fishers are opportunistic when it comes to targeted species that come up in their gear, but they would most likely stand guard if they stumbled on a bucket of bait. Its hard enough earning a living by hauling out marketable fish and they know it.

Jeff showed up a few minutes later the two were busily cutting heads off the bait and threading chunks onto large hooks. I watched the sky and felt for the breeze to try and predict if Yia Yia would fly today. The plan was to launch her from the boat and keep her in the air long enough to get a look at the boat in action, as she filmed us in Sitka Sound.

Jeff's skiff is 21' long. That's not a small boat for halibut.... its ridiculously small. This is one of the many conscientious fishermen I've met on this trip. Both Jeff and Megan have been fishing for a long time. They are committed to ensuring there will be fishing for a long time to come. They work incredibly hard. I watched as they deftly cut fish and hand-baited their hooks.

The halibut they will catch and bring to market will not be part of the something like 10 million pounds of by-catch allowed by ocean managers for bottom trawlers. Jeff and Megan are part of an economic ecosystem that struggles to survive. They target halibut, unlike trawlers that target everything in their paths. Ocean managers watch small fishers more closely than a Greek grandmother. Trawlers, on the other hand, seem to run a bit wild. The fish that Jeff will haul in on his nearly mile long line will be hoisted into the skiff, immediately bled, by hand, and packed in ice for the short trip to the processor that grades theirs along with other artisinal fishers in this fleet as the highest quality halibut money can buy.

Jeff named his boat several years back, the "Salt Lick", for reasons he can't explain. We went out as soon as the bait was cut and before I knew it, we were dropping the anchor line that held the buoy of the starting end of the line. The "anchor" Jeff uses on each end is large rounded chain. Even that seems to be a thoughtful choice. Compared to those huge ships that scrape the bottom with trawl nets into a desolate wasteland, this fisherman touches down with heavy, but rounded links that stay put for the most part. Along the way, as line is paid out while Megan drives the boat, Jeff places hand baited hooks every ten feet or so.  And we leave the two buoys with their convenient morsels to "soak"as they say.

We didn't fly Yia Yia on that sortee, but hoped for good weather when we'd return to haul whatever halibut has hooked up six hours or so later.

As I watched the two fishers do their work I was struck with the amount of effort and care they put into getting great fish, and keeping them that way... hopefully all the way to the plate. It may be a chef's responsibility to prepare the meal, but an unconscionable fisherman can make or break a night out at an expensive restaurant.

We went back out at 4pm. This time the wind at the dock was gusting and though I had Yia Yia with me, I wasn't hopeful. There was very little room on the skiff and even less margin for error.

Yia Yia has smarts. The DJI Phantom has this wonderful emergency back up system. If things get dicey, such as dead transmitter batteries or loss of signal from the transmitter... the drone would land itself in exactly the location from which it took off. The problem with being out at sea, of course, is the inability to keep the boat in place. Complicating things, when Jeff started hauling the line up, he was committed. He was not going to abandon his work (potentially leaving thousands of dollars of halibut hooked up) to go chasing my Yia Yia.

So, in the event of an emergency, I was not just on my own, I'd be pretty much sunk. Yia Yia doesn't swim, and to make matters worse, any data in the card will be irretrievable. Strangely, the entire trip back out to the soaking line was choppy, gusty and over big swells; but when we got to the buoy, it was almost glassy calm. And so I decided to risk a flight.

I launched the Phantom alone, starting it while I held it in one hand. I gave her the "gas" and she she shot upward, becoming instantly small and vulnerable to the wind and changing weather. I had one thought... "now what?" I was as committed to the flight as Jeff was to his line of fish. Both of us, through our own technologies, were tethered to our work. I flew several angles and fought the higher gusts of wind that were not evident at the water's surface.

When I reviewed the footage, I noticed that Jeff had been releasing monsters as he pulled them up. He has a quota of ling cod, but it's tied to a percentage of the haul of halibut. Since he hadn't caught any halibut yet, he could not take any of the marketable cod by-catch. He had to let them go. You can see it from the air. Huge fish, released as he waited for halibut. And then it happened. I was maneuvering Yia Yia overhead on a high shot when Jeff called to Megan for help. The huge flat, meaty fish was in a matter of seconds slapping my legs with its powerful tail. I was amazed at its strength. This did not improve my odds of bringing Yia Yia home.

Waves were pitching me up and down, the beast at my feet was trying hard to make a play for the sea again, and the drone's battery was showing a red light - time to come "home". I pulled back on the power, spun to face away from me for better orientation and could not get her back overhead. The boat was spinning on its own as the hydraulics pulled in the line and suddenly I could no longer see Yia Yia. The roof of the skiff bounced into my view instead with a swell from behind me. The Pharntom, though waited patiently, it seemed, for the roof to clear and I saw my opportunity, killing the throttle and dropping her into my outstretched hand. A kind of fishing, in fact - that combination of skill and luck. I carefully packed her up and spent the rest of the day filming Megan and Jeff's haul of over 300lbs of marketable, clean, perfect fish. It was a good day.

They caught the fish, I caught it on film with the watchful and ever-present hovering of Yia Yia.

After several hours, we managed to take some rock fish, a few huge ling cod and an octopus that tried every trick in the book to get itself back to the sea. And of course the halibut. As important to Jeff and Megan and a growing number of fishermen in SE Alaska in what they take out of the sea is what they leave behind. Their by-catch (best defined as "non-target" species), is minimal. The many skates, one large eel and undersized halibut were left behind with just a small toothache. And that's a far cry from cleaning out the sea of everything in their path. This is intimacy-fishing. These fishers are in close contact with the fish they take, and those they put back. I'm not an expert, nor am I filled with thoughtful solutions. But to this simple fisher of stories, it seems obvious who should be constantly monitored by a hovering busy-body. And it's not the small boat fishing fleet of Southeast Alaska.

The Fishing Vessel, "Salt Lick". 
This aerial view shows Jeff releasing by-catch. The practice
of releasing non-target fish is as important, if not more so, as what they catch.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Going fishing

Since I'm heading out into the rain on a skiff to film a halibut fisherman at 6am... I finally caved and got some Xtratuf boots. Besides keeping my feet dry, I also will avoid stink-eye at the dock ... don't know which is more important.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Xtratuf in Alaska...

Yakutat, Alaska has almost no cell service. There are only 400 year round residents here in this native borough. My client, Andrianna and I flew here from Kodiak.

We were in Kodiak then Yakutat to interview fishermen and film them out on their boats. My client, The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, is raising funding through local investors to help start-up fishermen get up and running through low interest loans and other financial tools. There is this thing called "Quota", locally referred to as "Q", that is the incredibly complicated system that is in place for certain species of marketable catch. Believe me when I say it's really complicated.

I brought a lot of expensive camera and production equipment with me, including our primary film platform, a Canon 60D and compliment of lenses, and of course the DJI Phantom quad-copter. The drone is becoming a standard piece of gear for me now as it creates incredible production value.

But in Yakutat, not only is it unnecessary to lock the doors, it's considered rude. Nobody locks their doors and most everyone just leaves the keys in their ignitions. And of course, I want to blend in. So I'm leaving the very expensive equipment behind unlocked doors. Remarkably it's reasonably easy to blend in by leaving the doors unlocked. Not so easy to blend in when it comes to fashion. My biggest issue is the fact that I don't have the right shoes. It is not an exaggeration to say that EVERYbody in this town wears the same boots. Xtratufs. They are brown with beige trim. I'm the only one in this town that doesn't have a pair.

Xtratuf Boots
The other night after filming for the day, we went to a local restaurant. There was a sign on the front door that said the Glacier Bear Lodge would become a non-smoking restaurant on June 1, a few days away yet. Being that it was one of two restaurants in the whole area, and we couldn't find the other one, we went it.

The Glacier Bear is dark (and smokey). The food was good. The four or five other patrons were all wearing Xtratufs. I was not. The woman that delivered the menu, the hostess, was also the bar tender. And the waitress.

After we ordered, she informed us that she is also, I'm not making this up, the Mayor of Yakutat. Her honor wears Xtratufs, even when she's serving drinks AND delivering the mail. That's right, she is the post person here in this town. These small towns are filled with politics, I've heard. But imagine the implications of a Mayor with these credentials.

Imagine if our presidential candidates delivered mail along the campaign trail and served drinks at the "local" bar. No wonder she was elected. Brilliant campaign strategy. Hostess, bar tender, waitress and postal deliverer, she says she gets very few questions, comments or arguments in her office at "borough hall". She does; however, get a lot of drop-ins there at the Bear and while she's out distributing the new Sea Gear Marine Wear catalog and other junk mail among the bills. I don't have to mention that Sea Gear carries Xtratufs. I think it's time I got a pair.

While understanding Q is incredibly difficult, life in Yakutat is relatively simple. So they say. Fishers are my new heroes. They are brilliant people. Among other things, they understand Q and they get that the processor, (our host in Yakutat was the privately built business, "Yakutat Seafoods") faces daunting odds, right along with the fishermen. The cost of electricity on that island... .50c PER KILOWATT. And with refrigeration/freezers, and massive power cranes lifting tens of thousands of pounds of fish at a time... you can imagine the odds of staying ahead of your power bill.

It's not so simple, really. The simple life comes at great cost. 400 people in a town that has three main roads, all of them with dead ends, means everybody knows when everyone else is doing something. That complicates things. The feds change the rules and restrict Q so the Xtratuf wearing fishermen can't haul enough fish to pay for their $6.00/gallon, and climbing boat fuel. And the quota shares themselves are costly. A fisherman may buy $30,000 worth of quota shares for halibut this year, only to be told next year that he can't use them because the federal government is limiting the amount of halibut that can be taken in the fishery.

It makes for the bursting of the bubble of the American dream if you ask me. And it's why the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust is trying to support these fishermen that don't have a chance of buying Q. The simple life, Tuf though it may be, gets weirder and harder when you have the patriarchs of fishing families that have acquired quota over the years, and then face retirement. There are limits as to what they can do with their quotas. For instance, the retiring fisherman may need to sell his quota in order to retire. If he gives it to his daughters or sons to fish, there is capital gains to think about for the transfer. It's as though the simple life is Xtratuf from every angle.

I only understand an ounce of the seawater that has collected, bilgelike in the holds of the great federal shipload of commercial fishing industry restrictions. But my simple head gets this much, once again, it's almost impossible to be in business these days. And it's only getting more difficult. The survivors seem to be the bottom trawlers and conglomerated processors...

Yakutat, quite honestly, stands as a beacon of hope. If those fishermen and processors can weather the storm of difficulty and ship their incredibly high quality fish, FRESH, to almost any part of the world, there is hope for the rest of us small businesses trying to make it.

Federal laws mean well, I suppose. But it may be that the lawmakers are so far removed from the people they serve that they can't feel compassion anymore. It's hard to think about the guy that only 24 hours earlier pulled the perfect, angel-white filet of halibut out of the icy sea, risking his life for your comfort and appetite. Maybe I'm not the only one that needs a pair of Xtratufs and a walk around the neighborhood with a middle aged waitress that knows what her community needs and wants. Maybe the faceless policy makers, our president included, in our nation's capitol are overdue for that kind of community too.

Below is a snapshot from the air, our Xtratuf (I've crashed it a few times) little drone the DJI Phantom, grabbed of Yakutat the other day. We were at the Icy Waves Surf Shop. And THAT is a WHOLE other story....